The past five years have been incredibly stressful. Not only did we have a worldwide pandemic, there’s the war in Ukraine, we’re seeing more frequent natural disasters and now there is massive uncertainty in Gaza. On top of that we are living with food insecurity, a significant rental and housing crisis, and a higher cost of living all round.
That means that the grown-ups who are helping to raise our little ones and our tweens and teens, are all being impacted with an increased perception of threat. This means we will generally be less calm, less grounded and more likely to be reactive rather than responsive in our homes and our schools.
When our brain and body are in this state, we can feel less safe to the children we care for too, and we are more likely to speak and behave in ways we would prefer not to. No one really wants to be a shouty, angry parent, and yet we are carrying more worry, more fear and lots more cortisol – the stress hormone – in our brain and body.
Over the last couple of months when I have sought feedback from parents, early childhood educators and teachers in our primary and secondary schools about what they are taking away from my seminars, I am hearing – “I need to lighten up. I need more laughter in our home and more fun.”
Parenting is harder today than it was when I was being a parent of boys. So much more pressure to get it right or to be perfect, an overload of information, a sense of competition, less time to be present thanks to our phones and then all the stressors I have listed above.
The parents I speak to are trying so hard to be the parent they want to be, and they beat themselves up in the moments of imperfection and often then drown themselves in guilt afterwards.
It is really hard to find lightness and laughter when the going is tough, however I’m going to argue that this needs to be your priority at every stage of development for our own self-preservation.
I have often said to parents that, seriously, laughing can release the same tension from the body as crying, and you will look a lot better after a good laugh!
The ability to lighten up and to find laughter in everyday activities is a life skill that can be cultivated. Online behaviour, which is driven by our tech companies, is influenced by what we are marinated in. The tech companies have worked out that the more negative content you see online, the more you stay engaged. This simply adds to our stress levels and our negativity.
I would like to see some research done about using humour appropriately, and how we can change these algorithms to marinate us all with moments of lightness. I have a few very favourite reels or videos online that I have bookmarked for the days when I’m feeling weary in the world. Yes one of them involves a goat (language warning) and even though I have seen them many times, they trigger spontaneous laughter which is followed by a profound sense of relief and joy.
Resilience studies have shown that having a healthy sense of humour can be a protective factor when things get tough. I was blessed with a dad who had a fabulous sense of humour, and I am sure it has helped me to develop my sense of humour which I have taken into my home, my classrooms, my writing and my seminars.
Just this morning I witnessed the power of lightness with one of my granddaughters. She was very upset that Mummy couldn’t find the right headband before heading off to school. Her face was full of angst and sadness as she got in the car. As we headed off with her sister in the back, I began telling some of my funniest Knock Knock jokes. By the time we got to the school gate, both little girls were shining with lots of positive neurochemicals for the school day. It’s such a shame that a sense of humour doesn’t land under the Christmas tree, and that it’s something that we need to encourage and nurture in our homes and our schools.
The following is an extract from my bestselling book Mothering our Boys. (Feel free to substitute girl wherever I write boy because this applies to girls as much as boys).
The power of laughter
An essential component of having fun is laughter because it releases wonderful feel-good endorphins and neurotransmitters instantly throughout your whole body. Boys are always looking for laughter and lightness in their lives and while some days it will drive us almost crazy, as mums of sons we need to recognise that this is incredibly important.
Laughter shared between two people brings those two people closer together in an incredibly joyful exchange of delight. It does more than that too.
• transforms emotional states
• stimulates endorphins and creates wellbeing
• increases levels of serotonin
• is a key coping skill, especially for boys
• is an anti-bullying strategy
• encourages lightening-up in serious moments
• is a bonding experience when shared in groups
• builds inclusivity and connectedness, and secures friendships
• releases tension and stress
• is a key element in effective communication,
especially in close relationships
• is an antidote to violence.
There are times when young boys use inappropriate humour in certain circumstances. Risqué or ‘shed’ humour has a very important place in the Australian psychology as do our ‘larrikin’ depreciatory humour and language patterns. Culturally we tend to ‘put things down’ or deflate compliments. For example, “Wow, you have scrubbed up pretty good tonight darling!” can be an Australian compliment that is genuinely meant to be kind. An overt compliment like, “Wow, you look amazingly beautiful tonight!” could get you a quick kick in the knee! This cultural nuance needs humour and without it, people can easily take offence.
Apprentice tradespeople are sometimes the brunt of antics and pranks by older staff. Some young folk are asked to find the left-handed screwdriver or the black and white striped paint. If they don’t understand that this is a form of joke, they can feel really shamed when their workmates laugh. So, it is really important that we prioritise helping our little boys to learn the complexities that are a part of a sense of humour.
“Our two nieces were staying over. We sent the two girls and our two boys off to get ready for bed. The girls cleaned their teeth and put on their PJs. Our boys had a wrestle instead and I ended up changing ‘sharted-on’ sheets as a result! Boys!” — Mum with a Nervous Twitch
When humour isn’t funny
The sad reality is that part of the old male code is supported by sexist and racist humour, which is very common in some parts of the bloke world. If we are to raise our boys to be respectful to girls and women and other cultures, we need to start when our boys are very young.
This means that we lovingly coach our sons when they repeat sexist jokes that are disrespectful to women and denigrate them in any way. Humour is an incredibly strong bonding pattern among men and male humour can often be a bit gross or inappropriate when shared in front of women. Helping our boys realise that there is a time and a place for being a bit gross, however not offensive and for shed or paddock humour, is crucial for our boys. If we start helping them to realise this difference early in life, then we are giving our boys a better chance at knowing how to make appropriate choices using humour.
Sharing simple riddles and jokes with young children is an excellent way to nurture a sense of humour. There will be times when the children share a joke that is a little inappropriate and it’s important to avoid shaming or overtly sanctioning their attempts — especially publicly. One of my sons — who was in Year One at the time — came home busting to tell a joke at the dinner table. It went like this:
“Mummy, what’s the difference between a light bulb and a pregnant lady?” The answer was: “Well, you can un-screw the light bulb!”
Needless to say, his older brothers loved the joke and he had no idea what the joke was about. He was just passing on something he had heard at school.
One way to encourage laughter and lightness in the home is to have fun fact books, joke books and riddle books especially beside the toilet. This is a place that everyone has to visit and having some material that builds a sense of humour is making very valuable use of this little room. These books often combine humour with interesting fun facts and can be educational as well as entertaining. A few of my favourite lines from our toilet joke books are:
• “No man has ever been shot while doing the dishes.”
• “Five out of four people have trouble with fractions.”
• “If one synchronised swimmer drowns, does that mean all the others have to?”
• “What happens if you get scared half to death twice?”
• “Marriage is the chief cause of divorce.”
• “Be careful not to be too open-minded — your brains might fall out.”
By reading these books and sharing the funny bits with family, children can learn the nuances of joke telling and of being humorous. This is a very important part of communication among friends and family. Only practice can improve anyone’s ability to be humorous. I can still remember wondering what was wrong with me during my teenage years because I didn’t seem to be able to ‘get’ jokes; I just missed what was funny. I still remember feeling quite stupid as well.
The capacity to laugh deeply and in an uninhibited way is another life skill that takes developing. Children who feel safe and valued can even fall over when they get an attack of giggles or laughter. Lightness and laughter can calm our boys when they are struggling. A positive gauge of the wellbeing of a child can be how often they smile and laugh. It is something that is very difficult to fake as children — if they are unhappy or frightened, their face shows it. As adults we need to treasure these exquisite moments of joy.
On the first day of school, a first-grader handed his teacher a note from his mother. The note read, “The opinions expressed by this child are not necessarily those of his parents”. – Anonymous
I recommend that parents use props and puppets to increase the levels of lightness in the house. Witch’s hats can warn children that Mum is feeling grumpy and her tiara will help children know she’s feeling happy. Puppets can cheer up any place; they become metaphors that can help with communication so powerfully. I know teachers who have the clean-up puppet, the quiet time mouse, a Tigger puppet for exercise time and the serious owl for proper chats about values. Be adventuresome and lighten up, and your children will come with you. In the process you, too, could make your spirit and heart happier, and help your stress levels dissolve.
One last message on the topic of humour that’s important to teach boys is that there is a difference between when we laugh with people and when we laugh at people. This is a difference many boys find really difficult to distinguish and, indeed, many adults also find this difficult. Be mindful to spend lots of time teaching how words can be helpful or hurtful, and that making fun of people is breaking the three main rules.
I have always been an enormous fan of the pun and, sadly, I think it’s disappearing from the English language because so much humour now is in a visual format. So, for any mums who are fans of the pun, here is a selection to bring a smile to your face.
1. He bought a donkey because he thought he might
get a kick out of it.
2. A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion.
3. The Energizer Bunny’s been arrested, charged with battery.
4. A skunk fell in the river and stank to the bottom.
5. And… I was wondering why the baseball was getting bigger,
then it hit me!
“Humour also assists in accepting life’s imperfections, inevitabilities, difficulties, frustrations and disappointments. It helps us to realise what we cannot control, such as death, the behaviour of other people, incompetence, ageing, physical limitations and illness. Jokes and funny throw away lines can also communicate messages that help us understand what is normal and typical. In knowing that others share some of the same feelings, perceptions and troubles, we feel more empowered to deal with these troubles.” — Helen McGrath and Toni Noble, Bounce Back! Teacher’s Handbook (2006)
Laughter and lightness in homes and classrooms builds safety and connectedness. These are two of the most fundamental needs of every human, not just our children. Seriously, it’s time we all lightened up – even if it’s only for a few moments a day.
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